What is education really worth?

Although education for African children is a popular charitable project, governments and NGOs are pressured to keep costs ridiculously low in areas that don’t always have the resources or infrastructure to run schools effectively in the first place. Although I know that budget struggles are not particular to Africa, the greater amount of international funding makes it a more difficult project. Bridge International Academies is one organization that has tried to bring a business model to African schools, and was recently featured in Wired. They refer to their model as “school in a box” and according to their website, “our three cofounders wondered why no one was thinking about schools in developing countries the way Starbucks® thought about coffee.”

I mean, do I even have to go on? These are people for whom crappy coffee and third-world education systems are synonymous.

I’m still intrigued at what we can learn from a “school in a box” model, but I know a few things we won’t learn:

  • Children deserve indoor toilets. The article makes sure to point out that the area the author visited did feature indoor plumbing, but that the Bridge school had latrines. Yes, it is expensive to build buildings for school, but how would you feel if your only school wasn’t any more stable than a shack?

One of the founders is quoted as saying, “It doesn’t matter if kids are sitting in a building that you call a school. They can be sitting under a tree, so long as they’re getting educated — that’s what matters.” Yes, that is true. It is also true that children don’t need computers or tablets or anything more sophisticated than a yardstick to learn most facts (although knowing technology is becoming a much-needed, expected skill for most). But why don’t these kids deserve a school? Is this “school in a box” going to be folded up one day? Investing in a child’s education is a long-term commitment to his/her community.

  • Teaching is a profession. “Because effective lesson plans are a notoriously difficult aspect of teaching, Bridge eliminates any guesswork — dictating classroom instruction down to the noun and to the minute.” Teachers, who typically have no more than a high school diploma, are trained for only seven weeks. I’m fine with opening up the teaching profession, but it seems more that this depresses the profession rather than raising up these new teachers. What happens if the teachers stray from the script? What if their students need more than what the script provides? Especially as students become more sophisticated thinkers, how can such a system possibly keep up with them?
  • Um, there are actually schools in Africa. “Bridge isn’t the first nonpublic school in Kenya or in Africa. For years, local communities have created low-cost, mom-and-pop ventures that backstop government failures. Bridge cannibalized this informal tradition but also brought it to scale.” (I can’t even comment on this, but I think it speaks for itself).
  • School fees prevent children from going to school. The most infuriating item that I read was that Bridge charges school fees of $5 per student per month. Maybe that doesn’t sound high to your American ears, but that can be a lot of money to an African family, especially one with multiple children. Families who can’t afford this fee can still send their children to free public schools, but that means you just reinforced a class system. Richer kids now have access to an education that poorer kids can’t. Congratulations.
  • Who needs to be held accountable. “Accountability is the key,” says Kimmelman, speaking about school oversight. “It’s really weird, and really amazing, and it works.” Again, I agree with the spirit of this, but not the application. The thing is, it’s not just teachers who need to be accountable. Education demands a community, and a school system needs to be responsive to that community as well.
  • What education really is. The “genius” behind Bridge is their systemization. Each school is exactly the same, the way you expect a McDonald’s to look the same and give you the same food whether you are in San Diego or Boston. Except, you know, it’s education. Individual kids and individual classes are different. They will need different things.

Education is also a tool of nation-building, which is necessary in most African countries that have been ripped apart by conflict and colonialism. A citizen of Kenya SHOULD have a different education than a citizen of Uganda. But that smacks in the face multi-national capitalism on which Bridge is predicated. Are they really educating citizens or consumers?

The above is really only a sampling of how disturbing I find Bridge. I am sure, however, that it will attract plenty of positive press from media that is looking for “new! Innovative!” ideas for a monolith AFRICA. But what our worldwide children need is not necessarily innovation. They need to be treated as cherished, productive members of a growing society. There are few new tricks in making sure that kids get regular medical treatment, proper education, and are protected from awful people. And we shouldn’t trust corporate zombies who try to sell us Education 2.0 that smells just like Imperialism 1.0

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